Perfectionism is everywhere, but I want it out of my garden.
I’ve started to get to a place in my life where I have a knee jerk anger response to anything that reads to me like asking individuals to solve systemic problems. Of course some individual choices in life truly matter, but it really seems so many of these things are just planted by the powers that be to make us all messes of anxiety and thereby distract us from the real, large scale issues that we face. Issues, of course, that can only be solved by political change and collective action.
A recent example that comes to mind was an article a week or two ago in the NYT from some researchers arguing that typical metered dose inhalers for asthma control are a contributor to climate change, and all asthmatics should switch to inhalation powders.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been dealing with a post-COVID asthma flare for weeks now, but I just about lost it. Perhaps metered dose inhalers are bad for the climate, I don’t know, but it’s hard for me to believe they are a more significant factor than the under regulated contributions of industry and big ag. So what purpose does it serve to make people who are just trying to be able to breathe feel guilty every time they use the medication that keeps them alive?? Just diet culture in another form. Aggggghhhhhh
I’m a therapist and much of what is named here - the rigidity, the perfectionism, the absolutes - line up with what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) calls “unhelpful thinking styles.” White supremacy enforces all these thinking styles and benefits from them; but they also show up because of trauma and mood disorder. Using a chart of CBT unhelpful thinking styles is a great way to start identifying them. In CBT, the step after identifying them is to notice how thinking that way makes us feel, engaging with the thought and questioning it, and trying to come up with a more realistic version (instead of “only native plants can be planted in my garden” CBT might have us shift to “I’d like to plant more native plants”). As a resource for anyone interested, here’s the unhelpful thinking styles chart I use with clients: https://www.psychologytools.com/resource/unhelpful-thinking-styles/
I’ve said this before, but this kind of performative perfectionism is totally bound up in class signifiers for me. Like being an enlightened, educated, cultured, upper-middle-class person involves never planting non-native plants, eating processed foods, shopping at chain stores, wearing clothing or having furniture made of man-made materials, etc. Stores have followed suit, so that now if you’re a middle class person visiting the stores that are most accessible to you, ALL of the materials are man-made, and it’s hard to even find a pair of leather shoes. And on top of that there are all these time-consuming endeavors that are supposedly “for the planet,” like trying to eliminate all plastic from your household (which always reads to me as “look how relaxed I am and how much free time I have!”).
In around 1998 I went on this diet that was sponsored by a local “diet center” and involved a lot of processed chemicals and specially packaged diet foods that were NOT in line with this class-signifier idea of “health,” which at that time I referred to as “yoga-girl culture.” I was 25 and desperately wanted to be part of yoga-girl culture, which involves being thin but also doing all these other lifestyle-specific things. So I went off the diet and started eating “health food” and doing yoga, and gained all the weight back.
Great call out. I’ve joked over the years that once I started intuitive eating, it bled into every area of my life. I started doing “intuitive” everything! And I think for me, it was because I was seeking to be more embodied overall, was trusting myself to know what I wanted, and seeking less approval and input from outside sources. Not saying I am the expert on everything but realizing that I’m the only one living my life and I get to make decisions.
And as a houseplant owner, I’ve tried to grow native houseplants inside and it doesn’t always work. A pot in my apartment may not be ideal conditions—who would have thought! The idea that you need to only grow natives inside seems needlessly performative.
It really does show up everywhere! This idea that if only I didn't consume any single use plastic or reused more of it, I could single handedly save the planet from total destruction is one that I see a lot. It's not enough to bring my water bottle with me instead of buying bottled water, it's not enough to be thoughtful about whether I need a plastic produce bag for those nectarines at the grocery store. There's always more more more that I *should* be doing and if I'm not do I even *care* about the environment?
It's just everywhere. Anything that can be taken to some extreme of "purity" is taken there, to the point where we suck all of the joy out of it.
I'm an insect ecologist and would like to throw in my two cents to say that while there are some bugs that only eat certain native plants (Eg. monarchs on milkweed), lots of insects can be well supported by a variety of plants from a variety of origins. I really appreciate how this essay as it connects to my feelings about working in a lab that focuses on conservation of native ecosystems. There's often giant gaps between what the 'ideal' conservation scenario would be versus how humans actually manage their land. Both non-native plants and insects are here to stay and some are even in this weird third category of "naturalized", meaning they've been here so long that people think they are native. Biology is bonkers and plants have been moving around forever. I hope you plant the damn lilacs Virginia because they make people happy!
I love this and feel like it explains why I have kind of hated what gardening becomes in my family (it seems to not be able to be a hobby, but must become a fill-the-larder-with-canned-goods endeavor if we're going to do it, which is time consuming AF). But what is diet culture and what is perfectionism? Maybe it doesn't matter and it's just the same issue at play.
This is a great analysis, Virginia. I had been toying with the idea that "native plants ONLY" has become a way for otherwise left-leaning folks to express racism. Non-natives are "invasive", just like those damn immigrants taking our jobs and ruining our pristine state of nature, where "state of nature" is doing a lot of work with a lot of imported baggage. None of the sentiment that there can be good immigrants that enhance our lives and culture is on display from the people who proudly identify as "native Nazis". I find the whole movement very loaded.
THANK YOU, VIRGINIA (sorry only caps lock will do, sometimes)
I just joined some FB groups for native plants and wow, they are kind of a judgmental zone! I’m scared to post questions because there are a lot of people on there just waiting to pounce on a newbie! What really struck me about your article is the “moral imperative” that comes with food, gardening, just about anything—like all of the sudden I feel like a bad person for having butterfly bush instead of butterfly weed! I’m really trying to talk myself through those situations so my morality is not involved in eating or gardening!
I noticed “diet culture” in my previous obsession with tracking my budget. I realized (after a comment or article I read somewhere ;)) that it had the similar feeling to counting calories. So I quit that budgeting app!
Yes! I have a co-worker who told me she only wants native plants and trees in her new yard. She also is a yoga teacher who has tried to give me unsolicited diet and nutrition advice. I never thought of her gardening mind-set as an extension of diet mentality, but now it makes so much sense.
This was totally fascinating. My husband is a soil conservationist for the NRCS -- and does all of the gardening on our property, which, I must admit, consists of many native plants -- but I've somehow missed the diet culture in it. (Does it surprise me though? No, no it does not.) Which makes me wonder if there is a gendered component to these conversations, as well. He's not talking to the bougie white lady in the Facebook groups, nor does he give a shit about native houseplants, and... is this because he's not in those spaces (or even aware that they exist), and is this because he's a man?
I definitely fell down the natives-only rabbit hole and the moral purity that comes with it when trying to reimagine our yard (dry shade solidarity). See also the moral imperative against using glyphosate for any reason, even if you've got a trifecta of bittersweet, multiflora rose, and poison ivy taking over your backyard (just me?). I feel like there's such a solid parallel between the way diets force you to not eat things you love and the way a natives-only garden forces you to not plant what you love.
Conversely, when I worked at a nursery, the people I remember being the most mad were the ones who didn't believe me when I told them it was illegal for us to sell burning bush and crimson maples and tried to sell them on perfectly lovely alternatives.
Ugh. Thank you for consistently writing what we need to hear. I’m learning and I’m able to recognize and call out diet culture when I see it. Now I have one more area to keep an eye out.
"(I could write an entire separate essay on the privilege embedded in gardening culture.)" Please do!!! It's literally the first thing I think about whenever I see any gardening posts lol. To be clear, not in the sense of I don't think you or any other posters are unaware of your privilege -- it's something you address often. But just ... I'd love to read it laid out more thoroughly and systemically, I guess. I wanna feel validated in my emotional reactions but hopefully also learn things! Including ways to get into gardening when you are of limited financial means or limited time or limited access to like, land that you own. (And I'm sure others have addressed this in some way but I'm not in gardening circles because see: privilege so I would not necessarily encounter that writing.)